Gods and Demons of Diseases

Around 5000 years, many humans adopted cultivation that facilitated a settled life instead of wandering. Farmers had sufficient food, and the necessity to stay near their farming land encouraged them to build better and permanent houses. The safe dwellings protected people from wild animals and adverse weathers. Mothers and infants could afford good food and shelter. All these factors together gradually increased human population that exposed them to several miseries.

Around three thousand years ago and later, the world had several cities with populations exceeding fifty thousand and countless crowded towns and villages. Most people lived with domestic animals in small houses with poor drainage systems. The drained water collected near their houses, and various blood-sucking insects such as mosquitoes thrived in stagnant waters.

The settlements attracted several pests such as mice, rats and cats; they considered these to be safe, cosy and rich places to live. Moreover, large social structures resulted in huge waste disposal, since people visited open fields for the calls of nature. Thus, the human and animal excreta contaminated the drinking water. Houseflies and other vectors flourished in the piled garbage and transported its germs to human food. Thus, viruses, bacteria, amoebae and eggs of bigger parasites excreted in animal faeces found a way to reach the human intestines. Other parasites of domestic animals, such as fleas and lice, enjoyed the opportunities to cruise on human bodies.

During the period, the large families of farmers lived in small houses. Thus, all family members lived within spitting, coughing and sneezing distance from one another. Human settlements crowded with people, pets, rodents and insects facilitated the exchange of diseases with each other. Apart from public hygiene, the practice of personal hygiene such as daily bathing or brushing of teeth was not yet in common practice. Without personal and public hygiene, almost everybody suffered frequently from viral, bacterial or parasitic infections. Mortality of mothers and infants, within a week of childbirth, was common. Many infants and mothers died during childbirth.

Around three thousand years ago and onwards, large and crowded human settlements facilitated not only physical illnesses but social diseases as well. For example, almost half the people of ancient Athens were slaves: slavery was a by-product of civilization. Class differences instigated envy, hatred and vengeance, which ultimately resulted in crimes such as theft, quarrels, murders and rapes. In order to provide a social order, priests and kings, throughout the world, themselves made moral rules and propagated that god had dictated them.

The contemporary priests and philosophers already knew about the gods responsible for weather, famine and other natural phenomena. However, they could not find any obvious divine power behind the new human miseries. They began to visualize that certain unseen gods must have sent them; new god must be capable of causing epidemic diseases. This almighty god must have a magic weapon, which could destroy the major population simultaneously. In fact, the priests and philosophers imagined a god that was omnipresent and omnipotent. They believed that this new god created and nourished every creature. This new god governed all the celestial bodies and the sky god. He was behind every mystery of nature and was supposed to be the one ultimate power. Monotheism—the concept of one and only one God—emerged this way. Monotheism was an attempt to explain all the mysteries and miseries faced by humanity.

Priests of several regions visualized and named this one and only one God. They invented many prayers and sacrifices to propitiate this God. This theory gave rise to several questions; logically, an angry God should inflict the disease on everyone. Why was God killing only some people and not all? Priests observed that different people have different colours and shapes, but God made them so. They noticed that there was a vast difference in human behaviours. They visualized that God must be annoyed by certain bad behaviours, habits or acts. Priests noticed that many people often committed antisocial activities, and this annoyed and affected other people. Obviously, those acts might annoy God too. Priests designated several human acts as offensive, antisocial or immoral—the sins. They concluded that these sins provoked the anger of God, and He punished the sinners through diseases. Here, the notion of sins and good deeds entered the scene.

This theory achieved three objectives: it explained human diseases, priests found the whip of God, to control crime and it resolved the puzzle of non-sufferers from the plague. This elaborate explanation propagated by priests solved the mystery of epidemics for the time being; however, this deferred the growth of scientific approaches. In the darkness of such superstitions, people worshipped God and made no scientific efforts to find the reasons and the remedies of their illnesses.

This theory was not an individual thought but a global invention. Several priests advised the worship of this one and only God and denied the existence of all previous gods. After this propagation, gradually, civilized people from all over the world became convinced that one God was behind diseases. At the same time, priests of several places continued to revere the previous gods and discovered a new god responsible for human miseries.

Greek philosopher Hippocrates (460—370 BCE) was the first one to assert that diseases were natural events; gods or demons had nothing to do with them. Surprisingly, the priests began to convict and punish the rational scientists. The study of anatomy of the dead was considered heresy in several places. During the last two thousand years, religious authorities did not allow any scientific progress. For example, priests considered smallpox to be a disease sent by an angry god. In the nineteenth century, religious authorities prohibited vaccination for smallpox because it was supposed to intervene with the divine affair.

The great scientist Galileo invented the microscope in seventeenth century that laid the foundation of modern medicine. Gradually, in the next three centuries, humankind came out of its previous ignorant state. In 1858 CE, Louis Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology, discovered that tiny organisms, not seen by the naked eye, were the cause of communicable diseases. After this discovery, the priests who continued to believe in the god-and-demon theory remained in their temples as priests and were quite content to do nothing more than that. However, the priests with a scientific mind—now called doctors—chased the microbes.

In the last fifty years, humanity has conquered almost every communicable disease. It is a result of the marathon researches undertaken over the last three hundred years. Humankind today practises evidence-based medicine, and medical scientists know the cause of almost all human ailments. Almost all the infections, except the viral ones, are now curable: vaccination is there for the prevention of viral diseases.